Cape Town – The Bulls’ ‘Operation Stop Antoine Dupont’ had another layer added yesterday when the French scrumhalf was chosen as the Six Nations Player of the Year.
Dupont had gained 26 percent of the 138 000 total votes, beating off the challenges of teammates Damian Penaud and Thomas Ramos, and Ireland’s champions Mack Hansen, Caelan Doris and Hugo Keenan.
The 26-year-old became only the second player to win the award for the third time (2020, 2022 and 2023) after Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll, and the third person to claim back-to-back gongs, following O’Driscoll and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg.
So, even when France don’t win, Dupont does. Is there any way the Bulls can keep Toulouse’s No 9 quiet in Sunday’s Champions Cup last-16 showdown (4pm SA time kickoff)?
“I’m sure there are ways – and I’m not going to divulge those ways!” a cheery Jake White said pitch-side during practice in a sunny southern France yesterday.
“But we’ve played against sides when I was coaching South Africa where we had (players like Dupont). One that comes to mind is the Argentina team that had Agustin Pichot playing there, and he was as important to them as Antoine Dupont is to the French team and Toulouse.
“But the one way anything happens to any player is to build pressure – pressure changes actions of players, and it happens in all sports.
“You watch what pressure does to golfers, what pressure does to decision-making in the last 10 minutes of a game… And I think that’s the key. We’ve got to build pressure and find ways that the whole team can put pressure collectively on the opposition.
“That filters down to the decision-makers, as it does to us. There’s nothing unique to trying to understand how you build pressure.”
As much as the entire Bulls team will need to watch Dupont closely, likely starting No 9 Zak Burger will need to produce the performance of his life to keep the French wizard in check.
Burger has done it before, most notably in last season’s United Rugby Championship semi-final against Leinster in Dublin, where he was up against Irish international Jamison Gibson-Park.
The former Paarl Gymnasium pupil produced his best ever display on that June Friday night at the RDS Arena, with his service from the base impeccable, his box-kicking accurate and his decision-making assured – while he also delivered a try-scoring pass to captain Marcell Coetzee.
So, the 24-year-old should not be overawed by the fact that he is facing arguably the finest rugby player on the planet at the moment.
Despite suffering their eighth consecutive defeat across all competitions with last weekend’s 32-23 reverse to Ulster in Belfast, the Pretoria outfit are excited about the challenge at the Stadium de Toulouse.
“Nothing’s changed. We’re still obviously needing a result, but as I said, it was a much better performance (against Ulster),” White said.
“We’re now in a knockout game against one of the best sides in Europe. People often use the phrase that it doesn’t get tougher than this, but having coached here, I know how big rugby is in Toulouse, and how good they are when it comes to this sort of competition.
“I think they’ve won it five times, and have played in a couple of finals. It’s a big ask for us this week, but we’re looking forward to it.”